Coughlin cool, confident amid storm

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On Tom Coughlin's final trip to the podium before heading to the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, it was immediately clear he never would have stood a chance at the World Series of Poker.

A winning hand was written all over his face. He was calm, confident, even a bit cocky in the face of a coming storm.

Coughlin joked with reporters, or at least joked at their expense, told a story or two, and generally acted like a guy ready to end up with a lampshade over his head at a victory bash near you.

Rex Ryan, eat your broken heart out. Coughlin has been a new man since that conquest of the New York Jets, kindred souls of the George-Billy-Reggie Bronx Zoo, minus the ticker-tape, of course. While Ryan leads his no-ring circus into the longest offseason of his life, the coach who embarrassed him, the one New York coach who actually owns a ring, looks and sounds like someone who knows he's going all the way ... again.

"For a 65-year-old man to be jacked up for a game like this," Dave Tollefson said, "I think it speaks to what this franchise is so excited about."

Fans of the New York Giants remember the last time their head coach appeared to be having the time of his life. It was Super Bowl week in Glendale, Ariz., where Coughlin stunned reporters, players, even some team officials by putting on something of a Vaudeville act day after day -- he even mocked the size of his own ears -- while Bill Belichick did his damnedest to put everyone to sleep.

Those who were skeptical about all those kinder, gentler changes Coughlin allegedly made to his draconian approach at the start of 2007 were suddenly made believers. "If he didn't change," Michael Strahan said at Super Bowl XLII, "we wouldn't be here."

On the Friday before what would be an indelible victory over the 18-0 New England Patriots, one holdout reporter asked the Giants coach to prove he'd lightened up for real by saying the word "fun."

Without hesitation, Coughlin leaned into the mike and said, "Fun," drawing another round of laughter. Belichick was too busy stonewalling any and all "Spygate" questions to join in the show.

This time around, Coughlin used another Friday to announce that he really, really feels good about the Giants' chances Sunday in San Francisco. He didn't actually say that, but then again, he didn't have to.

Off the news that David Baas had caught Eli Manning's worst career pass -- a stomach bug -- Coughlin was asked if the Giants were taking precautions to prevent a sci-fi movie from breaking out on the team plane.

"Like what?" he answered. "Everybody's wearing masks, everybody's washing their hands, everybody's doing everything they can. Like when your sister came home with whatever, and you got it?"

The good-natured sarcasm didn't end there. On whether the undisclosed procedure performed on Jake Ballard's bum knee was meant to improve his chances of playing and playing well against the Niners, Coughlin deadpanned, "No. We actually thought it wouldn't. ... Surely we did. What do you think those [trainers] do in there, play cards?"

Coughlin would go on about one of Sunday's honorary captains, Rich Seubert, and how last year the former offensive lineman gave him a holiday photo of the two of them together. "And I'm like, 'What am I going to do with this thing?'" Coughlin joked.

He threw it in his locker, forgot about it, and rediscovered it around the holidays this year. When done explaining he's been staring at Seubert's photo for the last six weeks, someone asked Coughlin if he was talking about the recent holiday season.

"Yes," he said in an incredulous tone. "We did just come through the holidays. There was some significance to that. ... Anything else, now that we're done with the stories and having a good time?"

There's nothing else but a game in Candlestick Park, and maybe Coughlin's ultra-confident vibe is a product of muscle memory. He wasn't involved with Jim Fassel's follies of nine years ago, but he was very much involved -- as wide receivers coach -- with Bill Parcells' 15-13 NFC Championship Game victory over San Francisco's two-time defending champs 21 years back.

Or maybe Coughlin -- only weeks removed from the firing line -- is merely hellbent on enjoying this win, lose, or draw. He knows people are suddenly talking about him as a potential Hall of Famer, and more importantly, he knows he's proven he can still inspire men who aren't even half his age.

"When people need to be disciplined or need to be yelled at, and things should be tense," Manning said, "[Coughlin] does a good job of doing that. And I think he's gotten better over the years when there's a time to relax and smile. You do see him smile a little bit more now than eight years ago when he first came in."

Eli praised Coughlin for pushing the right buttons with the young players, the Victor Cruzes, the Giants who haven't been here before. "Everybody knows it's a big game," the quarterback said, "but you don't have to keep talking about it. You don't want to stress that. You just get guys to go out there and play loose, play like we've been playing the last few weeks, and just enjoy it and have fun."

Antrel Rolle called Coughlin "more calm and more relaxed than ever," and Tollefson said there's a good reason for that.

"I like to think I know Tom pretty well after playing for him the last five years," Tollefson said, "and I just think he's very comfortable with where we are mentally as a team."

Mentally and physically. Justin Tuck was a wreck before Coughlin sat him down before the Jets game and coached him through too many aches and pains to count.

On his way out of the locker room Friday, Tuck spoke of his respect and affection for the only NFL coach he's known.

"I think he's embracing [the media] more than he has in the past," Tuck said, "and he has that been-there, done-that confidence in this team and how we're playing. That's allowed him to relax and just go about being the good coach that he is.

"He knows how to push the right buttons to make guys respond, and that's what makes him one of the elite coaches in the league. The reason I enjoy playing for him is there's no guessing; you know exactly what he wants from you. A lot of people are mistaken when they say you're supposed to be best friends with your coach. We have a great working relationship, and a lot of times that's a whole lot better than the two of you being friends."

Coughlin was never known for trying to make a lot of friends. But he's become more agreeable, more approachable, more willing to relax and enjoy the ride.

In his last public appearance before the flight to San Francisco, Coughlin showed off that better side of his personality. In doing so, he acted like a coach who might know something his 48-year-old rookie counterpart, Jim Harbaugh, does not.

You know, like how to win an NFC Championship Game.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.